Apr 30, 2012

Road to London

Have you ever wondered what it's like to be a young Colombian scientist trying to find a job in Europe or abroad? Sometimes I've wondered whether an application I've submitted for a job in Europe has been rejected just because of the complications that are implicit when hiring a non-European migrant and not because of insufficient qualifications. The same I should say for the States.

Am I worth less just because I was born in the third world? Sometimes I wonder, sometimes I can't stop myself from feeling that way.

I started looking for a job during summer 2011, knowing that my contract in France would end at the beginning of February 2012. I thought I had started looking with enough time in advance, so that I could transition jobs immediately after ending my contract. I had just signed in February 2011 and a couple of months later I had to start looking for a new job, funny. I think it should be illegal to grant contracts for less than two years, or how can you focus on your current job when you have to be thinking on what's going to happen after it's over. Not only thinking, but doing job applications, grant applications, visa applications (if you even get that far). Most of the time it will be a waste of time, and quite a substantial amount of it. I don't complain, it's reality, and after all you only need ONE to be successful. In any case, it's the end of April 2012 and I have not yet started on my new job.

I sent many applications to available positions at different companies. Mainly research positions in bioenergy production using photosynthetic organisms, which is my expertisekind of. I was positively surprised by the great number of available positions, yet the only thing I got back were automated responses acknowledging the receipt of my applications. I sent applications to some labs at different universities too, yet silence was the most popular answer. By mid September 2011 I saw an advertisement on nature.com for an available postdoctoral position at Imperial College London, with a deadline for the 19th of September. It fitted my professional profile almost perfectly. I did applied with high hopes, and at the end of October I was told that I had made the short-list of candidates and that I was invited for an interview to the lab immediately. Awesome, I thought, then I remembered I was Colombian and that even thought I had been living in Europe for more than six years and even thought I lived and worked in France, I had to get a visa to take a train to London for the interview, yet I scarcely was going to stay in the UK for 24 hours. After postponing the interview, getting an invitation letter to take to the embassy, paying all due expensive visa application fees, and waiting a couple of weeks for an answer. I managed to go to the interview a month later than it was planned. Do you see how a Colombian is at a great disadvantage?

Early in September too I had contacted my PhD supervisor in Sweden to let her know that she might be contacted for recommendation letters. Unexpectedly, she told me that she might get some money to hire a postdoctoral researcher and that if she got the money and I was interested, she would contact me again to consider the possibility of returning to Sweden. I was very excited about it!

It was not until the first days of 2012 that I knew I was not selected for the position in London. Just one month before the end of my contract in France. All parallel applications I had submitted had remained unanswered to the date. My PhD supervisor had not contacted me neither, so I had already suspected that she might have encountered some problems regarding the chance of hiring me again. She told me later that she had the money but was unable to hire me, basically because hiring me to work at Uppsala University being a graduate from the same university would be a lot more expensive for them than hiring someone else with a PhD degree from another university.

I had been already hired for two years in Paris, my boss had moved away from France and had started a new lab in the UK, at Imperial College London too. I was told that because regulations at the CEA, the place I was working, it was impossible to continue working there directly after a postdoctoral position. My last option was to ask my current boss for the possibility of hiring me again and thus joining him in London. Fortunately, he told me that I could continue working for him in his new lab. What no one knew was how hard and complicated it would be for a Colombian (or better, a non-European) to be hired and get a visa to work in the UK. It's almost impossible, it so hard that in 2012 only three Colombians have obtained visa to work in the UK. One of the greatest difficulties is for the company or institution to demonstrate why they have to choose a foreigner for the job over a UK citizen or a national of the EU.

I started then the application process to join my previous boss at Imperial and getting everything ready for the visa application at the end of January beginning of February 2012. It's the end of April and I'm still not finished with the process.

The work visa to the UK follows a point based system described on a 100 pages handbook. You have to complete some points for a Certificate of Sponsorship, that is a certificate provided by the hiring institution confirming that you will be contracted. You have to get some points for the salary, so that it's high enough. You have to get some points for maintenance, so the applicant must demonstrate that he or she has £800 intact in his or her bank account for the last three months, or that the sponsor will provide that money. And finally some points for language, so in order to work in the UK you must have some level of English. The funny thing is that if you miss any of those requirements the visa will be rejected regardless of how many points you make rendering the point based system pretty useless. Now, one way to demonstrate that I speak English is by having obtained a degree equivalent to a UK bachelor's or above taught in English. I did my PhD in Sweden, absolutely everything was taught in English yet I can't use that as a demonstration, just because some agency decided that a PhD in Sweden was not good enough for the English requirement. So, I have no other option but to do an English exam...

Let's not talk that much about the price of the work visa, £480!! Which makes it pretty much the most expensive visa I've ever encountered. And let me tell you, I have encountered quite a number.

I have so far overcome all obstacles and difficulties: it has meant at least three months without a salary, a great deal of money, and an almost unbearable amount of stress and anxiety... because it doesn't matter how many times you tell yourself that everything is going to be alright, you'll still feel that at any step something may go wrong and all you've struggled for will just crumble down. Next Saturday I'll present the English exam, once I obtain the results I'll be able to complete everything I need to apply for the work visa and with some good luck I'll be traveling to London at the beginning of June. Almost one year after I started looking for a job.


  1. Hi Tanai!.. randomly stumbled upon this blog while trying to answer exactly the same question.. "How much longer?" .. nice read, hope you made it to south kensington in good time! :)

    1. Thanks for commenting. I'm here now already for six months, the wait was worthy. Good luck!!